Michelle Rhee used to be the chancellor (whatever that means) of the Washington, DC school district. She got a lot of traction, at least politically, on the notion that teachers were the problem with her failing school district. (I don't remember the numbers, but I remember believing that the district was underserving its students.) She pushed through a lot of education "reforms" and took the teachers' union out at the knee in a blow it never recovered from. She fired large numbers of teachers at a time and then bragged about it publicly. The film "Waiting for 'Superman'" looks at the reasoning and positive consequences of some of those reforms. (Full disclosure: I never saw it and, if at all possible, I never will. I feel able to critique it because I have a pretty thorough understanding of the issues of charter schools vs. public schools and the sort of lottery entry system depicted in the film.) Now Rhee heads a non-profit organization called Students First. It purports to work towards reforming public schools so that they work well for all students. This is, of course, a laudable goal, one I share and one towards which I work passionately every day I get out of bed.
For Rhee and Students First, teachers are always the problem. The solution is always that if only teachers would care more, work harder, ignore their own lives, selflessly give, separate themselves from their unions and their negotiatied contracts, divorce their spouses and abandon their own children in favor of their students, then schools would just work.
Clearly there is a disconnect there. There are 3.3 million public school teachers in the US (NCSE), and it's just possible that some of them don't feel like they joined a monastic order. We feel a calling to the profession, sure, but does that automatically mean we give up any right to self-consideration? When faced with a choice between our students and EVERYTHING ELSE--ourselves, our families, our not-school-releated interests--do we have to choose our students every time, lest we become bad teachers?
This isn't a straw-man argument. This is the essence of blame-the-teachers education reform. When money goes to teachers, the argument runs, it isn't being spent "in the classroom." It's partially for this reason that Michigan has a law that prevents local millages from being spent on teacher salaries and benefits. (I think that's actually a pretty smart law.) The thinking seems to be that we coddle our teachers too much and so they fail our students. The solution is to put teachers in an atmosphere where fear of losing your job is the norm, where competition is more important than collaboration, where you can't trust your administrator to be your ally because your administrator's primary job is to look for a reason to fire you (and incidentally, replace you with somebody cheaper), where any mentoring has the potential for turning in to training your replacement.
This is all in the context of an article in the Center for Economic Policy and Research (h/t Eschaton Blog) that suggests that Rhee's non-profit organization rates schools and states on whether or not their teachers have a defined-benefits plan--a public pension--or a defined contribution plan--a 401(k) style plan. The more securely-funded the pension, the worse the grade. For all the difference it makes to the report card, a state can be giving the same amount of money to the 401(k) as to the pension. The question seema not to be, "How much on retirement are schools and states spending?", but rather, "Do states put enough market risk on teachers?" As the author notes, it is difficult to see how this has any impact on teachers at all.
I wish I could find it right now. But there's a fairly extensive meta-study out there that indicates that if you want creative people to come up with creative solutions to hard problems, the way to do that is to instill stability into the lives of your work force. You don't have to pay them exorbitant amounts, you just have to take care of them. Rhee's report card and its misplaced emphasis on how schools compensate their teacher is another example of how, when it comes to teachers, our society is doing everything it can to reverse that dynamic. Frankly, it justifies the mistrust a lot of people in the education community have for the benignly named "Students First," and the good chancellor.